Donna Medlin: Growing Strong

Growth comes with the territory when you are the director of foodservice for the nation’s No. 1 integrated health system—St. John’s Health System in Springfield, Mo.—but for Donna Medlin, the growth has come naturally. Medlin, a 31-year veteran of the foodservice industry, isn’t reveling in her accomplishments at the 880-bed St. John’s Mercy Health Center, nor is she content with the status quo. She is always looking to the future.

Over the past 15 years, Medlin and her staff of 193, 134 full-time equivalents, have more than tripled the number of daily meals served, from 3,000 to 10,000. Most of that growth came in 1999, when St. John’s Mercy Health Center became part of an integrated health system, which incorporated five smaller rural hospitals and 460 physicians’ offices with the main hospital, for a total of 10,000 employees. With the integration, Medlin oversaw the opening of cafeterias in two office buildings that house several dozen physicians’ practices, as well as three other satellite cafeterias on the one-and-a-half-mile long campus. Even with so much expansion, 95% of all cooking is done at the main hospital and then shipped daily to the other locations.

Even though, for the most part, patient count has remained stable since the integration, Medlin says the increase in average daily meals can be attributed to a boost in hospital employees, as well as more staff members choosing to dine in the cafeterias, which has become a more convenient option since staff parking became limited with hospital renovations.

Another jump came in 2001, when St. John’s became the first non-contract hospital in Missouri to implement a room service component. Currently, 120 beds are on room service in the OB, Pediatric, Women’s Surgical Center, Oncology and Burn units, which Medlin says hold patients who typically don’t like to be constrained by set meal times. Room service is available from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., with options ranging from short-order items such as chicken strips and cheeseburgers to roast beef and spaghetti.

“We tried [to offer room service to] the whole hospital and we just really weren’t set up for that,” she says. “Those were some of the most memorable and stressful days in my career that I don’t wish to repeat.” Limited staff and kitchen space, as well as the extensive menu she offered, were where Medlin says difficulties arose.

Internal operations: Growth has also occurred within the health system with the opening of five satellite cafeterias since 1999. One such operation is Heart Rock Café in the Cardiac Research and Rehabilitation Facility, where most menu items are heart healthy, such as lean meats with a low-calorie or fruit sauce. Medlin says the café has its own distinct menu. “We’ve tried to keep those entrées specifically for that facility to give them brand distinction,” she explains, adding that the café is often a social dining area for those with a family member in the facility. “We try to pick items that people aren’t going to say, ‘This isn’t so bad for healthy food.’ We want it to be good food and be able to stand on its own anywhere.”

In addition to the five satellite cafeterias and coffee bars, which bring in 10% of yearly sales, Medlin says the department sees about $1 million in internal catering each year. She says with the integration of the physicians’ offices, catering demand increased significantly because of the sheer number of people to serve, and staff meetings have become events commonly catered.  She attributes this to “food being very much a part of our culture in the Ozarks. If two of us get together, we eat.” Internal catering sales have more than doubled since the integration with the health system, she says.

Outside business: Another area that has seen increased revenue for the department is a contract with a local adult daycare center, DayBreak. For the past five years, St. John’s has served between 40 and 45 daily hot lunches at the center, which provides a place for those adults who might need care during the workday. The menu is the same as the hospital’s cafeteria menu, with as-needed substitutions for special diets. Medlin says the partnership works well because both entities are affiliated with religious groups with similar missions. Revenue per week is around $750. “We aren’t trying to get rich off of them,” she adds.

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